In 1985, Pierre Berton published an erotic novel, Masquerade: 15 Variations on a Theme of Sexual Fantasy, under the pseudonym Lisa Kroniuk, having managed to keep the project a secret from everyone, even his wife, until he was confronted by a journalist about it. That anonymity served, presumably, a dual purpose by allowing Berton to unleash his wilder self on the page, while protecting readers from unwanted imagistic intrusions: the visage of the bow-tied, side-burned popular historian – best known for his writing about steel, not brass, rails – not renowned, let’s be honest, for its aphrodisiac effect.
In Secret Sex, editor Russell Smith employed the same concept, but in anthology form. The approximately 25 stories, or sex scenes, collected here, which run the gamut from out-and-out smut to experimental and impressionistic, aren’t bylined. We know who the contributors are – well-known Canadian names such as Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, Susan Swan and Heather O’Neill, as well as a few up-and-comers – but not which entries they wrote, so readers can choose to play sleuth, or remain blissfully ignorant.
In your introduction you call writing about sex ‘tricky waters.’ Has that been your experience writing sex in your own fiction?
I’ve always been obsessed with sex. There’s a lot in my books. And I got more graphic as I went on. In my first novel, there’s no graphic sex. Characters fall into bed, then you join them in the morning. But aside from one book, which I did call pornography because it was supposed to be arousing, the rest are just scenes meant to show how a relationship is progressing.
We write endless scenes of eating, food scenes, dinner scenes and the tensions over the social interactions that occur over food. It’s strange to me that we’re more hesitant about sex.
Maybe this is because there’s no Bad Eating Award?
Exactly. I did find that I’m not the only one to have this problem. I approached many more writers than those who appear in the book, and about 40 per cent said no to my solicitation. I was surprised by the variety of reasons. Some said, “I don’t do sex at all. I’m too uncomfortable about it.” And many said the thing that was the reason for the existence of the whole anthology, which is “I can’t imagine my mother reading it.” And some said things like, “My cultural community wouldn’t approve of me being involved in this.” Or “I’m a kindergarten teacher.” It shows that there’s still a lot of hesitancy about it and a lot of anxiety.
What was the actual assignment?
I said I wanted any writing that involved a description of sex. It didn’t have to be graphic or explicit.
And I didn’t always get that. I got some stories that had sex in them tangentially, that were more about something else. And then some stories are just a graphic sex scene. So they range from the extremely subtle and melancholy and reflective to the full-on orgy.
I do think it was freeing for many to know that their story would appear without their name on it.
They were describing their own marriages in some cases. And I can imagine them not wanting their kids to read it. I mean, the problem is that many will be completely recognizable to their kids and their exes, but that’s not my problem [laughs].
How was the editing process?
It was exactly the same. Honestly, there’s no difference between writing sex and anything else if you’re doing it right. You should approach it the same way you describe entering a hotel lobby. Writing shouldn’t change tone once you get to a sex scene: It should be precise and specific and concrete. I think when people get into trouble is when they try to be poetic. It’s the euphemisms that are generally cringy and ridiculed by the Bad Sex awards. The use of “manhood” instead of “penis,” for example.
Trying to describe a state of ecstasy without describing anything physical leads to all those very abstract metaphors and poetic passages about our souls dancing together like dolphins in heaven. All of those things that get mocked for being overly purple writing. I’m always in favour of simply describing what’s happening in neutral terms.
Did any surprise you?
A gay orgy scene in one story had some of the most graphic sex I’ve ever read. I was shocked at my own ability to be shocked. I mean, if it can shock me, it’s good.
And I was surprised by how many people turned to surrealism. There’s a story about a brain in a tank that’s kind of fantasy-horror fiction. I was really surprised by the variety of it. There’s a story entirely in text messages – a couple sexting – which is quite humorous. But there’s also very serious short stories with an actual plot and significant thinking involved in them. I did find that, on the whole, the younger writers were more comfortable being graphic than the older writers. That generational difference is perhaps predictable.
You’re the only one who knows who wrote each story. Was there ever an instance where you thought, I can’t believe that came out of that particular person?
Yes, but I can’t tell you which ones!
This is the funny thing about sex. You know everybody has it, you just try not to think about it. It would make life difficult to know about everyone’s sex life, so it’s always on the edge of discomfort learning about it.
People used to try to differentiate between porn and erotica, but in your preface you say none of these stories qualify as erotica. How so?
Erotica sets out to arouse. I don’t think that’s the primary purpose of these stories. These are serious writers who can’t help but write serious pieces. They didn’t dash anything off to be silly. They’re quite literary. But because they have graphic sexual content, I would be surprised if they didn’t arouse. It’s fine they do, but it’s a by-product.
I don’t make a distinction myself between erotica and pornography. I think pornography is just erotica you disapprove of.
What pleases you the most about the collection as a whole?
The thing I’m most proud of is the diversity of voice. There’s some very conventional styles, some very chatty, talkative styles. There’s minimalist styles, and then there’s the purely surreal, and then there’s the purely experimental. It’s funny how so many writers have thought of different things as sexual. For example, there’s one story that makes a parallel between the act of literature and sadomasochistic sex. It attempts to show the act of writing as a form of sexual masochism. It sexualizes writing itself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.